Parent's little helper or shifty spy? 2 Winnipeg comedians debate the merits of Elf on the Shelf

Is Elf on the Shelf a joyous family tradition? Or a creepy scare tactic for kids?

Creepy or cute? Garth Merkeley and Jane Testar, of sketch comedy troupe Hot Thespian Action, discuss

Garth Merkeley, left, and Jane Testar, right, debate the creepy versus cool factor of Elf on the Shelf. (Submitted by Garth Merkeley and Jane Testar)

In 2005, the family toy Elf on the Shelf was launched, along with its accompanying book, eventual app and even a TV special.

The premise was simple: the toy elf, which can appear in strategic locations in a home, is a spy sent by Santa to keep tabs on little boys and girls, and report back to him on their behaviour.

But is Elf on the Shelf a joyous family tradition, or a creepy scare tactic for kids?

Winnipeg comedians Garth Merkeley and Jane Testar, of the Canadian Comedy Award-nominated sketch troupe Hot Thespian Action, agreed to take on this topical question.

And a warning for parents of younger readers: this column may reveal some harsh truths about Santa Claus and his elf helpers!

Oh, and it contains language about elves that may be offensive to some.

Garth Merkeley:

Charming fun for the whole family, right? A welcome helping hand at a stressful time of year? 


Garth Merkeley seems a little weirded out by his holiday companion. (Submitted by Garth Merkeley)

What most Elf on the Shelf fans don't realize is that this seemingly innocuous little peeping Tom could actually have dire consequences on the development of the child, their relationship with their parents and even on society as a whole! 

Jane Testar:

Oh boy, here we go! Another jaded "xennial," about to spew a river of psychobabble to extinguish the tiny candle's worth of childhood innocence left in this world.


You want psychobabble? Oh, I'll give you psychobabble!

Two words: Extrinsic motivation.

Any parent worth their weight in frankincense knows that if you motivate kids to behave by offering them rewards and punishment, they learn to behave just for the sake of earning rewards and avoiding punishment.

If they are programmed to believe that the only good reason for not hitting their sister is the promise of a new Spider-Man action figure, then what happens on Boxing Day when little old "Elfis Presley" is thrown in the attic for the next 11 months?


So unlike the worldwide social construct of, "if you do something wrong, you go to jail."

Kids need a little fear. They respond to it.

Jane Testar seems just fine with her elf buddy. (Submitted by Jane Testar)

I'm sure every parent would love the luxury of having the time necessary to teach little Aubrey and Ryder that people must strive to be good for the sake of good.

But the little scamps haven't started reading Aristotle yet. They've barely started reading Rowling.

In the absence of a master's-level ethics course, threatening to take away the toy works.

Besides, someone watching kids in order to get them to behave isn't new. We've had Santa knowing "if you're bad or good" for decades.

Also, Jesus watches over you while you sleep.

So does my neighbour with insomnia.

It's not a big deal.


But unlike the chilling reality that your neighbour is, in fact, watching you sleep, the elf — and by extension, Santa — are proven later in life to be elaborate lies!

Think of the damage this violation of trust does to parent-child relationships!

Children are programmed by nature to look to parents for how the world works. No wonder kids start turning to all sorts of bad influences shortly after that bond is shattered one fateful night when the kid decides to stay up to catch Santa — only to discover it's Dad leaving the Sega Genesis under the tree.

OK, I may be projecting a bit here.

But the rift it creates is real.


First of all, nice try with the Sega Genesis. It was a Teddy Ruxpin and we all know it.

Secondly, as truth bombs go, finding out that elves aren't reporting back to Santa Claus about your behaviour isn't exactly atomic.

This isn't, "Your dad has a second family and he likes them better."

Garth Merkeley and his unwelcome companion. (Submitted by Garth Merkeley)

Lying is a social lubricant that children will need to get through their adult lives.

Did you tell Deborah at your office that you hated her haircut? Anyone with eyes would hate the asymmetrical bob with chunky highlights!

But instead of barfing truth all over Deb's fragile self-esteem, you said, "Someone got a haircut! Looks nice!" like a decent human being.


I hope you count "flat-Earthers" and climate change deniers as "decent human beings," because if not, then best kick Elfonso Ribeiro to the curb.  


While I commend your supply of elf-based names, I fail to see how a little harmless make-believe can lead to the rejection of science.


Follow me here. Do you think that when Jaydynn and Ryykker wake up each morning and find Samuel Elf Jackson fishing in the bathroom sink, or making snow angels in sprinkles in the kitchen, they don't — on some level — know that this is just parental propaganda?

You never know which shelf the elf might appear on, Garth Merkeley discovered. (Submitted by Garth Merkeley)

But there's Mom and Dad, teaching them to ignore instinct, reason and logic, and to attribute it all to floofy fairy dust and enchantment — thus learning to believe whatever they're told, no questions asked. 

You're creating a generation of rubes. 


My god, Garth, suspend that disbelief for a second! It's Christmas!

Do you give Disney movies bad reviews on Rotten Tomatoes because the talking animals "aren't realistic?"

Maybe it's a fun little tradition where everyone's in on the joke, they're just looking forward to what the next joke is going to be.

"He ate all the baking soda! He's swinging from the chandelier in a Sia wig! He's pooping out Ferrero Rochers! I did not see that coming!"

Good clean fun!

If you want to stay firm in your intolerant, elfist beliefs, that's fine. The elf community will do just peachy without you.

The elf looks innocent enough, doesn't he? (Garth Merkeley)


Fine, maybe we don't need to take it so seriously.

As a discipline tool, I think we can agree, it's not great. But maybe it doesn't have to be one.

I guess it can be a family activity where everyone plays along because it's more fun. Like how my family used to pretend that my uncle was slurring after Christmas dinner because he was "tired from the turkey."


That's the spirit! 


So fine, put Elf Scott Fitzgerald on your shelf. Make him roast mini marshmallows over a Christmas candle! Let him dance a waltz with the tree-topper angel.

But don't mess up your kids for life by trying to teach them right and wrong with toy elves. 


Wholeheartedly agree.


But you have to admit — that shifty little bas---d is creepy.


Oh wow, yes. He doesn't have feet. WHAT'S THE STORY THERE??

How did he get up there with no feet??? (Submitted by Jane Testar)

This column is part of  CBC's Opinion section. For more information about this section, please read this editor's blog and our FAQ.

About the Author

Jane Testar and Garth Merkeley are members of the Winnipeg-based Canadian Comedy Award-nominated sketch troupe Hot Thespian Action.


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